Dreaming of summer’s blue skies, starry nights

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“They’re OK the last days of May, but I’ll be breathin’ dry air; I’m leaving soon, the others are already there all there.” — Buck Dharma

There was afternoon jazz playing on the speakers, a cherry fizz in my hand. I had just walked into the dining room when outside the window I caught the flash — a woman in scarlet with shiny black wings.

She was indeed a classy-looking, elegant bird with a song like that of the springtime robins or those cutthroat rose-breasted finches, the grosbeaks. She was kin to the western, summer and hepatic varieties now classified among other showy red birds — the tufted, red cardinals and the like.

She was no seed cracker though. She blew in for the sweeter stuff, a taste of the hard, white fat off the kidneys and the loins. I’d never seen a dame like this haunting the cages before.

In fact, she wasn’t a dame at all, she was a he, a real firecracker, with two black eyes. He had a pearl handled bill and someplace to go. In a couple of downbeats, he was gone — out of sight.

Come and gone in a brilliant and dazzling flash, this scarlet tanager was gone as quick as a flame snuffed out in an instant. My excitement remained hanging in the air.

So, this is how it had gone, with a tear or two falling from the sky and the wind swirling around, just enough to dry the dampness — one of the last days of May.

There’s been a lot of that lately, reports of all kinds of flashy gents dazzling peepers across the countryside, from Fumee Lake down to Stonington, across the Keweenaw Peninsula and back, straight out to Whitefish Point.

As much as I’ve seen, I have a feeling my watch is broken again or everything is set back a couple of weeks, like some strange extension of daylight-saving time. It seems the buds on the trees and the arrivals are behind too.

Maybe word blew down south far enough to reach the neotropics where these cats hang out, letting them know the winter was a real big blow, one that would have killed us all, given the opportunity.

The day of the Sunday blizzard was the worst for me. My Jeep got stuck in the driveway 2 feet outside the garage. The winds jerked and snapped the overhead cable line, whipping it down to the ground.

An hour or so later, with the Jeep still stuck in the drive, it really felt like winter was going to take us down under for good, for real. The damned wind kept blowing and the snow wouldn’t stop — so cold.

Fortunately, winter finally went away unpleasantly — screaming and crying and carrying on for weeks past its bedtime. Even now, at this late date, a lingering chill in the wind rattles me to the core, reminding me of the memories of those harsh winter days that still hurt me to think about.

It feels as though I came through the mess having developed some sort of trauma-induced mental block. I haven’t been able to think clearly and directly enough to move past the thought and feeling that it could dump snow down through the sky again at any moment.

Even now, as the does walking awkwardly are set to drop their fawns, the sounds of baby birds are in the air and flowers have sprung up all over the place, a creepy pain in the back of my mind won’t let me forget that icy chill.

The dawn choruses of birds are shaping up nicely, with those performances expected to continue for the next few weeks anyway. Then, the comparatively quiet time will settle in with the dog days of summer.

Even with more than enough rainwater around to quench California, and rivers swollen well beyond their banks, the brook trout were biting on one stretch I found, providing me with a nice catch to bring home to the dinner china.

With June sneaking right around the corner, I feel as though I need to dig my boot heels into the dirt and hold on tight.

This time of the year is usually where I lose track of a lot of my momentum and things start to drag down like the doldrums of the Horse Latitudes, time to start throwing stuff overboard.

And then, before I know what has happened to me, the clouds lift suddenly, and Fourth of July has come and gone. I’m left standing forlorn and frumpy, with a wet sparkler in one hand and a wrinkled American flag in the other — my Uncle Sam beard clearly having seen better days.

Which reminds me that the real fireworks of summertime lie just down the road, in the mists of the June evenings, along the streams and the water holes, just over the top of the meadow grasses — the fireflies will be dancing in the blue of the night.

It’s electric. It’s natural, pure energy for me to consume, the kind that boosts my spirits and sends adrenaline coursing through me.

Those days and nights are good for crosstie walking, wallowing in dreamy thoughts and just bumming around. That’s the time of the buzzing and twitching of grasshoppers and crickets, the gold of the goldenrod and the sparkling summer stars above.

In those days, I can be found walking down the old roads of cracked pavement that once led to glorious dreams and futures now won or lost in the mists of decades gone by.

I think about the brevity of all of it — generations of hopes and fears, gone like the hinges off an old screen door, left hanging by one corner off somebody’s grandma’s front porch.

Never coming back again, like the newsstand in the old neighborhood, the shiny big cars from Detroit or Elvis Presley. Where has that party gone? I want to go there.

A week or so ago I was treated to a glorious late chorus of birdsong, with a crow serving as the conductor for the performance. He flew up from the grass in the yard to a dead tree limb, scraping his black, tough bill back and forth across the branch, like an orchestra conductor tapping his baton on the edge of a metal music stand.

With that, the robins began, with their more melodious cousins, the hermit thrushes joining in next, delivering their flutelike virtuosity from back in the blossoming maples. The ovenbirds were there too, like the flickers and the white-throated sparrows.

In the skies above, tree swallows and chimney swifts announced their return from the southern climes. From the lake, the sounds of geese fussing over their yellow, fluffy goslings emerged, while loon song echoed in shimmers of colorful magic over the water.

As the sun was slowly sinking behind the trees, the wind died down and the sound of toads — with their constant monotone — took over performance duties, with the help of some spring peepers still shopping for mates.

Still hearing the jazz, the afternoon is over with now, and the cool shadows of nighttime are almost here. Maybe I need another cherry fizz. I think again about relaxing with a cigarette, but I still don’t smoke.

I long for the nights to be warm again, teased with light breezes creeping into my bedroom through the screen on the window. I want it to be warm enough to hear the tree frogs on a rainy night.

Yes, the trade winds are here. I’m ready for a change, but no change has arrived. The winds are dead, just the sounds of ice-cold waves lapping up against the shore and then rolling back out again.

I push the curtain back in place and turn away from the window.

Then came the last days of May.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.